2019 Wine Goals: Now THESE are Resolutions I can Keep!

In addition to being timely – which I still clearly need to work on – I made several resolutions for 2019. Not surprisingly, many are wine related. And while these might be more enjoyable to accomplish than my other annual goals (such as running “x” miles by year end, eating more greens, and limiting my screen time) they are by no means a slam dunk.

Find more daily drinkers. I want to find more (enjoyable!) wines in the $20 and under range.  So, this means purchasing less Champagne, Oregon Pinot and Northern Rhône Syrah – and more from undervalued wine regions like the Loire Valley, Chile and Portugal. It also means exploring some obscure varietals that don’t command the prices of many popular, international varieties – so hello Pinotage, Zweigelt, and Godello!

rosso di montalcinoA producer’s entry level or a region’s “second wine” can also be great daily drinker values.  I recently had a Rosso di Montalcino – considered to be the first example of a “second wine” concept in Italy.  The Rosso di Montalcino zone of production is exactly the same as the more prestigious Brunello di Montalcino.  However, Rosso di Montalcino is released earlier – so these wines are more fruit forward, easygoing and approachable than Brunello.  There is also no mandatory oak aging requirement and the price tag is usually much lower.  This one was full of floral and bright red fruit aromas, paired deliciously with lasagna and was under $20.

Stop waiting for special occasions to open up the good stuff! While I don’t have too many “daily drinkers” in my collection at the moment, I do have a number of bottles that I feel warrant some type of major event in order to justify opening them.  By no means am I bottle-bragging – I’ll never have that type of cellar – but bottles like Gramercy Reserve Cabernets and Syrahs, Quilceda Creek, Tignanello, Sassicaia, and wines from our travels to the Rhône and Burgundy have a more special place in my heart.  Oh yeah, and I would probably add to that list the Pol Roger ‘Winston Churchill’ that I might have just ordered.

These wines aren’t something I usually open on a Tuesday night to pair with my comfort food dishes . . . but – why not? Why not make a mundane Tuesday eve (sorry Tuesdays, I honestly don’t mean to pick on you) a little less so? What exactly am I waiting for?  I plan to change this in the coming year and open some of these “special occasion” wines when it is in fact NOT a special occasion.  Because as Maya said to Miles in the movie Sideways: the day you open a ‘61 Cheval Blanc… that’s the special occasion.

Keep up the Studying.  As I’ve said before, I’m not pursuing wine certifications so that I can end up having an alphabet soup of letters after my name.  I simply love learning about wine and am more disciplined about it if I have some structure .  Otherwise, I tend to dive deep into a series of rabbit holes that I struggle to get out of – such as trying to figure out the 65 soil types of the Ancient Lakes AVA and who are the 80+ owners of Vougeot.  You know, important need-to-know shit.

wset logo
I love that the WSET logo is a female!

In 2019, I’m hoping to obtain my Italian Wine Scholar certification (results expected in February!), get through at least 4 of the 6 Units of the WSET Diploma, and perhaps pursue another Wine Scholar Guild Master Level Course.  I’m leaning towards their Bordeaux course since this region is quickly replacing Italy as my “Achilles’ heel.” (Sidenote: I know that I will be afflicted with this “ailment” throughout my entire wine studying life . . . which is one of the reasons I love doing what I do.  There will ALWAYS be something to learn!)

Improve my tasting notes.  I think of this goal as kind of a “mindful drinking” type of thing. Basically, I need to pay more attention to what’s in my glass.  Sitting down and focusing on a wine’s aromas, structure, and quality helps immensely with the whole study process.  And as I continue to pursue the WSET Diploma, I should get to the level where I’m able to write a tasting note that meets an examiner’s criteria in my sleep.

I’m not a huge fan of publishing tasting notes – I think they’re boring and ubiquitous, so I won’t be doing that (did I just hear a collective sigh of relief?).  But I do have a beautiful tasting notebook for me to keep track of my thoughts.  I just need to bring it out more often – at least a couple times a week.

tasting notebooks
My tasting notebooks over the years

Have FUN with wine.  If I allow it to, studying wine can dominate my life.  It’s currently the focus of my school, upcoming travels, and honestly, quite a bit of my social activity.  I don’t want to get so caught up in the study of wine that I forget to enjoy it. Sometimes, I need to just have a glass and drink it – not analyze it (fortunately, this is Hubs’ strong suit!).

So on THAT note, I’m going to sign off, finish that daily drinker bottle of Rosso di Montalcino and binge watch last season’s Better Call Saul!

Cheers to a delicious 2019!!

 

 

 

 

My Wine “Best Of” 2018 – With Nary a Bottle in Sight

As 2018 comes to an end, many wine enthusiasts/geeks/bloggers put together their “Top Bottles I Drank this Year” lists.  While I do enjoy reading these posts, when I personally think back to my year in wine what comes to mind first isn’t the bottles that I drank, but my wine experiences: the places I’ve traveled, people I’ve met, events I’ve attended.  To me, these are more memorable then the wine I’ve consumed – and that includes the (purported) DRC.  I suppose this train of thought is keeping in line with me attributing my wine “a-ha” moment to a person as opposed to a bottle. 🙂

So without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my top 10 wine experiences of 2018:

My First Sabrage.  This “top moment” wasn’t so much about the actual sabering itself, but the fact that it occurred at my work goodbye party just before moving down to Southern California.  I’d been an employee of Capri Cellars for almost four years – it was my first job in the wine industry and will always hold a special place in my heart.  As a going away present, the owner and staff gave me a gorgeous saber and a bottle of Blanquette de Limoux (a sign perhaps?) to try it out on.  For my first attempt – I think I did quite well!

Starting the WSET Diploma.  Shortly after moving down to Southern California, I started my WSET Diploma studies at Neptune School of Wine.  (Oddly enough, even if we hadn’t moved here I was still planning on taking my classes at Neptune since there wasn’t anywhere in the Pacific Northwest that taught Diploma).  Over the past several months, I feel like I’ve become exponentially more well versed in Viticulture, Winemaking and Sparkling Wines having taken and passed Unit 2 (with distinction) and taken (and hopefully passed!) Unit 5.  I’ve likely got a couple more years before completing the entire program, and after that . . . who knows?

Joining The Vintner Project.  I discovered The Vintner Project (TVP) after seeing their post highlighting a winemaking couple in my hometown.  It’s not too often that something crosses my Instagram feed with the hashtag #Richland, so needless to say I was intrigued.  The goal of TVP is to focus on the stories and people behind the wine as opposed to scores or ubiquitous tasting notes.  Since these are the types of stories that I’d like to focus on myself, in May I joined The Vintner Project as a contributing writer.

Meeting Online Wine Peeps – In Person.  This was definitely a highlight of 2018 – and one I hope to add more names to in 2019!  I met several online wine people face-to-face this year, but two in particular stand out for me:

I followed Winetravel on Instagram for quite awhile before realizing that she lived in Orange County (where I was moving to) and was originally from my beloved Washington state (where I was moving from).  Since relocating, we’ve gotten together several times and have become fast friends – bonding over wine and travel (her online name obviously suits her).  We live close enough to one another that I could probably walk to her house in an hour . . . less if I knew she was opening a bottle of wine from her recent trip to Italy.

I can’t recall the first time I came across Spitbucket – it might’ve been the “60 Second Wine Review” she did on one of my favorite Washington wines: Gramercy Cellars’ Picpoul.  In any case, we discovered that we’d both been students at Northwest Wine Academy, and although we knew many of the same people, our paths hadn’t crossed yet.  I finally met her at the Wine Bloggers Conference in October and immediately knew we were members of the same wine tribe – she is equally as passionate and geeky about wine as I am!  Even though we’re not within walking distance, I’m hoping that our paths continue to cross – because she’s pretty damn awesome.

Buty WineryAuction of Washington Wines.  You know that feeling when you come home for Christmas break after your first year away at college?  That’s how I felt attending the Auction of Washington Wines this year four months after moving to California.  I ran into so many familiar faces: my old neighbors, Capri Cellars customers, people Hubs used to work with, my favorite wine photographer, and a couple that I see annually at this event – where we usually end up competing for the same wines!  This year was no different – we all fell in love with a new release from Buty Winery: Rockgarden Estate Grenache.  I left the evening one of the winning bidders on a case of this lovely wine – as did my favorite competing couple.  Who says you can’t go home again?

Trip to the Finger Lakes.  I’d heard a lot about the Finger Lakes wine region (also known as FLX) over the past few years, so I was excited to visit this past summer.  And who better to go with then my Best Galfriend with whom I could have fun in a cardboard box with.  Now, I’m not equating FLX with a cardboard box – but it IS rural (and I’m FROM rural).  So if you’re thinking you’ll catch an Uber to scoot out to dinner – learn from our mistake, and think again.  Nonetheless, the region’s reputation for delicious Rieslings is well founded – FLX is absolutely knocking it out of the park with this variety.  Hubs and I have already plowed through every bottle that I brought home.

Linus and IWSPassing the Italian Wine Scholar Exam – Part 1.  After months of studying, with some major time-outs for moving and WSET, I finally took and passed the first part of my Italian Wine Scholar exam.  For Part 2 (Central & Southern Italy), I’m doing a weekend intensive class next month in Portland (taught by two of my favorite wine instructors!) and am scheduled to take the exam in early February.  Although Italian wines will always be more challenging for me to wrap my brain and palate around than French wines, I’ve learned a ton through this program.  And more importantly, I have a better appreciation for Italian wine.

Becoming a San Diego Chevalier.  Shortly before we moved, I joined the Seattle chapter of La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin.  This was a fun bunch of Burgundy wine lovers and I was disappointed to be leaving them before I really had a chance to experience what the group had to offer.  Fortunately, I connected with (and joined!) the San Diego Chevaliers chapter and attended a fantastic Paulée earlier this year with my 1998 Vosne-Romanée in tow.  The next Chevaliers event is in a couple of months (it’s white tie – don’t tell Hubs or he’ll find an excuse not to come with me!) so I’ll be sure to post how that event goes.  And maybe with pictures this time. 😉

Learning From a Master of Wine.  It’s often said that in order to become better at something, you need to practice with, and learn from, someone who is much better at that “something” than you are.  A few months ago, I signed up for a series of blind tasting classes with Lindsay Pomeroy – a Master of Wine in San Diego.  In the short amount of time I’ve spent with her, I have learned so much more than I could have studying on my own with my nose in a book (or a glass).  She’s easygoing and friendly, but challenging. After I told her I was studying for the Diploma, she had higher expectations of me in her classes and would put me on the spot more often.  Which is good – because I usually don’t push myself outside of my comfort zone.  She’s giving me a level of confidence that I didn’t have before.

WBC remnantsAttending the Wine Bloggers Conference.  I know I said above that my Top 10 were in no particular order, but the Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla was definitely my wine highlight this year.  It was my first year attending and it was incredible to be surrounded by so many other wine writing enthusiasts – especially in a wine region located just an hour away from where I grew up.  Bonus:  Hubs attended the entire conference with me and provided our wine “quote of the year”.

Next year’s location isn’t quite as close – the conference will be held in Hunter Valley, Australia.  However, it’s recently come to my attention (thanks Hubs!) that this can be my birthday present if I’d like it to be . . . and I think I might go for it. 🙂  And if I do, I have no doubt it will be at the top of my 2019 list!

Italian Wine Scholar: One Exam Down, One Exam to Go!

This past Monday I (finally!!) took my first of two exams in pursuit of the Italian Wine Scholar certification.  This first exam focused on the wine regions of Northern Italy, as well as general information about the entire country (history, geography, soils, viticulture, etc.).  The second exam will be focused solely on Central and Southern Italy.    As I’ve mentioned before, I’m tackling the IWS primarily because Italian wines are my Achilles heel and I’m going to need to know this country inside and out for my WSET Diploma studies.

Since I opted for self study as opposed to an instructor led course, I was scheduled to take the exam online where a proctor takes over my computer remotely (to ensure there aren’t any hidden notes to cheat with) and watches me via camera the entire exam.  While learning the names of dozens of grapes I’d never heard of like Timorasso and Marzemino, and memorizing a myriad of DOCGs, DOCs and IGTs, might sound challenging – I think the most stressful part of the whole experience for me was setting myself up on Skype and Adobe Connect the day prior to the actual exam.

First, I accidentally called the proctor on Skype while sitting in front of my screen in . . .  well, let’s just say I was wearing something that I wouldn’t wear out in public as I had just gotten up from a nap.  Thankfully, she didn’t pick up – so I dodged that bullet.  But then I DID somehow leave a recorded message where you can hear Hubs in the background yelling “[insert my very private petname here] what’re you doing?” and me responding dopily “oh, just trying not to make a complete ass of myself in front of my examiner!  Tee-Hee!” (Yes, I actually did say TEE-HEE).  I’m not sure if this message was deleted despite my best efforts.  But at least my proctor was classy enough not to say anything to me about it the next day.  (I think she was British, and thankfully they’re into etiquette and manners.)

Now that I’ve had a few days to reflect on my whole exam experience, besides not leaving the technical setup to the last minute, I’ve realized there are several things that I wish I would’ve done differently for my first exam.  At least I’ve got a “second chance” (so to speak) with my second exam, which I’ll be tackling early next year.  So I plan to follow these helpful tips:

1. 10 Months is Waaaaay Too Long to Spend Studying for this Exam!  I started my Italian Wine Scholar self-study course back in January – TEN MONTHS AGO.  While I’m not making excuses, I did get derailed by some pretty big life events since then: moving from my beloved Washington state to Southern California, starting my WSET Diploma classes, and learning that the upcoming season of The Walking Dead will be Rick Grimes’ last.  However, even after taking all these factors in account, I still should have completed my IWS exam sooner.  For the second IWS exam – I’m giving myself three months of study time: November through January.  Take the exam in early February, and move on!

2. No Multi-Tasking!  One Exam at a Time.  I love multi-tasking – I get half as much done in twice as much time.  And that was definitely the case here.  I tried to study for the IWS and my WSET Unit 2 Diploma exam at the same time.  That didn’t work overly well for my brain, so I thought I’d try it again (what’s the definition of insanity?) and study for the IWS and my WSET Unit 5 Diploma exam.  Surprisingly, this wasn’t optimal either.  I’ve learned my lesson: for the next month, I’m focusing solely on my Unit 5 studies until exam day (November 7th).  After that, I’ll jump into IWS Central/Southern Edition.

3. Use the Wine Scholar Guild Online Materials.  The Wine Scholar Guild online resources are a wealth of information that I just did not take enough advantage of for my first exam.  There are practice quizzes, flashcards, maps and short overviews of each wine region – a wine geek’s dream!  During the last week of my studies, I tried to frantically make my way through some of these – and I’m glad I at least did this as some of the questions from the practice quizzes were quite similar to those on my exam. (Those of you planning to take the IWS exams – make a mental note of this!)

4. Don’t Focus So Much on %s.  I spent a lot of time and brain space memorizing the various %s of permissible grapes in certain blends.  Now, I’m not going to say that there weren’t any questions on this, but certainly not as many as my studies would have warranted.  I would have been better off focusing on major bodies of water and synonyms for Nebbiolo instead (another mental note!)

5. More drinking!!  This one should be easy enough to do.  During my studies, I did manage to go through several bottles of Italian wine – but there’s always room for improvement!  When there was a question about these grapes or appellations on the exam, and I was confident of my answers –  in part due to the fact that I’d previously sat down with a glass (or two, or three) of the wine.

Linus and IWS

So, now I’m going to put my IWS to rest for awhile. I’m heading off with Hubs to our first ever Wine Bloggers Conference this weekend!  Stay tuned!

Editors Note: as I was putting the final touches on this post, I received this email from the Wine Scholar Guild with my exam results.  Now I’m thinking I should just do everything the exact same way for my second exam!

IWS Results
96%!!!! 🙂

 

 

Italian Bubbles: Moving Beyond Prosecco

When it comes to Prosecco, I believe there are three types of people: those who love it, those who turn their noses up at it, and those who will drink it . . . but only if Champagne isn’t available. I fall pretty firmly into the last category.  Given a choice, I’d almost always opt for Champagne – unless I’m mixing my sparkling wine with orange juice (Helllooooo Boozy Brunch!!)

For many, sparkling wine is a commodity – completely interchangeable.   And that’s totally fine.  Others (present company included) are a bit more selective about their bubbles.  For me, I really like what autolysis* brings to the party so, if Champagne isn’t available I’ll look for a label that says “methode traditionalle” or “methode champenoise” – which indicates that the wine was made in the traditional method* – in other words, the same way that Champagne is made.  Prosecco, on the other hand, is produced by what is referred to as the tank method.*

*I realize that these terms are total winespeak for any relative newbies who might be reading this, so if you’re not exactly sure what those corkdorky terms mean – here’s a (very) quick debrief:

Traditional Method.  Once the base wine is finished, it undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle.  To accomplish this, a bit of yeast and sugar are mixed together, added to the base wine, and then the bottle is sealed up.  As in the first fermentation, the yeast consumes the sugar and produces alcohol and CO2 – but since this is happening within a sealed bottle, there’s nowhere for the CO2 to escape to.  So it remains in the bottle – creating the sparkle.

After the sugar is consumed, the yeast dies 😦 but its work is not yet done!  Dead yeast cells are referred to in winespeak as “lees.”  The wine “rests on the lees” for a period of time after the second fermentation is complete and this is where autolysis occurs.  Autolysis is essentially the enzymatic breakdown of dead yeast cells . . . and if your eyes just glazed over by reading that sentence you’re not alone!  I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around this myself.  Yet another scientific concept that I’m struggling with. :-/  The duration of autolysis can be anywhere from a few months to several years – the more time spent, the more yeasty/bready characteristics in the resulting wine.  Usually, lees aging needs to be at least 18 months in order for the wine to show any autolytic characteristics.

Tank Method (aka Charmat Method).  With this method, the second fermentation takes place in a large pressurized tank as opposed to inside the bottle.  The tank method is cheaper, faster and requires less labor than the traditional method.  It’s also used with more aromatic grape varieties like Glera (the primary grape of Prosecco) and Riesling (used in German Sekt) since there isn’t the degree of lees contact – which can overwhelm the delicate fruitiness of these varietals.  While you still get bubbles with the tank method, the resulting wine is much more fruity and fresh.  You don’t get as much (or any) of those yummy bread dough, brioche aromas that you do with the traditional method.

While Prosecco is Italy’s best-known sparkling wine (and best-selling at over 220 million bottles a year!), the country also produces a handful of sparklers made in the same method as Champagne.  And, typically, at a fraction of the cost.  Here are three traditional method Italian sparkling wines that are great alternatives (NOT substitutes, because in my opinion – there is none!) for Champagne:

Franciacorta DOCG.  This region released its first traditional method sparkling wine relatively recently – 1961.  Since then, Franciacorta has enjoyed immense success with their wines and is currently producing over 17 million bottles annually (with the bulk of this being consumed by locals – only around 20% is exported).  In 1995, Franciacorta became the first DOCG in Italy exclusively for traditional method sparkling wine.

Franciacorta is located in Lombardia and has a significantly warmer climate than Champagne.  This translates to riper fruit flavors in the glass and a lower overall acidity.  (Tip: look for “brut nature” or “zero dosage” versions of Franciacorta if you want to maximize acidity).  Interestingly though (to me anyways!), non-vintage Franciacorta is required to spend a minimum of 18 months on the lees – which is 3 months longer than Champagne’s minimum requirement!

The grapes used in Franciacorta are Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (aka Pinot Noir), and Pinot Bianco.  The latter is being used less frequently as it doesn’t add much longevity or energy to the wine.

For more info – here’s my outline on Franciacorta.

Trento DOC.  These wines hail from the Trentino region located in northeastern Italy.  Sparkling wine production started here in the early 1900s here thanks to Giulio Ferrari who believed the area had the potential to compete with the wines from Champagne.  And while these wines are produced in the same method and use the same grapes as Champagne (the holy trifecta of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) they taste incredibly different.  You’re likely to get aromas of peach, apricot, candied lemon and orange peel from Trento sparkling wines – with maybe a hint of biscuit character if they’ve been aged longer than 3 years. They tend to be fuller bodied with a level of richness to them.

Compared to Prosecco and Franciacorta, Trento DOC has a rather small production – 8.5 million bottles in 2010 (of which the Ferrari house produced nearly 60%) and the bulk of it is consumed locally.  Which might help explain why I haven’t been able to get my hands on one of these . . . yet. 😉

Alta LangaAlta Langa DOCG.  This area is becoming increasingly important for traditional method sparkling wines produced in southern Piemonte.  Although it is a large appellation overall, the actual area under vine is just over 250 acres (roughly 1/3 the size of Central Park).  And Alta Langa production is quite small – just over 600,000 bottles per year. Both planted acreage and production are expected to increase, however, as popularity of this region’s wines has soared in recent years.  And with good reason – they have some pretty strict requirements as far as what goes into the bottle and, as a result, are producing some delicious bubbles! 

Alta Langa vintageAlta Langa DOCG wines are made from a minimum 90% of Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir.  And, unlike Champagne and the other regions mentioned above, there is no “non-vintage” production here.  All Alta Langa wines must be vintage dated and spend a minimum of 30 months on their lees.  So you’ll definitely find more of those yummy bready aromatics in wines from this region. 

I hope next time you’re thinking bubbles you’ll give one of these a try.  If you do, please let me know what you think! 🙂   Want to learn more about wine and bubbles?    Click the link to the right and subscribe to this blog!!!   

 

Drinking Outside the Box: 5 Northern Italian Wines to Check Out

In life, most of us tend to stick to our comfort zone.  The same route home.  Our favorite coffee mug in the morning.  Cozy sweats and re-runs of a show we’ve already binge watched a few times (I’m certain that I’ve seen every episode of Sex & the City at least four times).  And the same varietals in our glass of wine.  Even when ordering at a restaurant we’ve never been to before, or visiting a new wine store with endless options, we’ll probably choose something we know – rather than something we don’t.

Since I started studying for the Italian Wine Scholar exam a few months ago, I’ve come to realize how many grape varieties there are that I’ve never even heard of – let alone tried.  (Italy itself has at least 350 different native grapes!)  Hubs and I have gradually started working through some of these grapes – mostly to positive results!  Proving that when I allow myself to branch out beyond what I’m comfortable with – my frequent Pinot Noir or Washington state Syrah – I expand my palate and my mind, but also my wine cellar. 😉

So, I’m encouraging you to “drink outside the box” and try something new as well.  Next time you’re at a restaurant or wine store with a carefully curated Italian section (particularly from the North!) – nix the Nebbiolos, pass on the Pinot Grigios and Proseccos, and give one of the following wines a shot instead.  You just might be pleasantly surprised at what you discover. 🙂

italianwineregions
Map courtesy of the always awesome Wine Folly

Cortese/Gavi.  Cortese is the grape and Gavi the location in Southeast Piemonte where it’s been grown since at least the early 1600s.  Cortese performs particularly well in Gavi and throughout the 1960s and 1970s enjoyed immense success.  However, in the same manner that other popular things have been WAY overdone – the Real Housewives series (did we really need DC?), the zombie apocalypse, “Keep Calm and [fill in the blank]” – lots of producers jumped on the Gavi bandwagon and tons of meh wines were the result of this massive overproduction.  Thankfully, Gavi has recovered and was elevated to DOCG status in 1998 – Happy 20 year Anniversary Gavi!  Same year as me and Hubs. 🙂

Gavi DOCG wines must be made from 100% Cortese.  These wines are usually crisp and refreshing with minerality and a striking lemon zest character.  And while it’s best known for still wines, Gavi is also produced in a variety of sparkling styles as well.

The Gavi we had recently was from Broglia.  Impressively, the estate has records of its vineyards going back to 972!  The wine was slightly riper on the palate than I expected – with flavors of ripe apple and Meyer lemon along with Cortese’s trademark minerality.  Some wines from this region can be nice little porch pounders for the summertime (or 10 months out of the year down here in SoCal), but this one definitely had more complexity and depth.

Northern whites

Arneis.  This white grape is native to the Roero hills in Piemonte and was saved from near extinction in the 1960s by two prominent producers in the area: Vietti and Bruno Giacosa.  Today, in large part thanks to these two, plantings of Arneis are around 2,400 acres.  Arneis is a challenging grape to grow – it’s prone to poor and irregular yields and tends to drop acidity rapidly when approaching full ripeness – which often isn’t until late September.  So, it’s no surprise that “Arneis” in local dialect translates to “difficult personality.”

When in the right hands, Arneis produces fuller bodied wines that are subtly perfumed and complex with aromas/flavors of white flowers, stone fruit and pear.  The wines are typically fresh and floral and should be consumed within a few years of release.

We had an Arneis produced by one of its rescuers – Bruno Giacosa.  The wine was definitely delicate in the aromatic department, I was getting yellow fruit (apples, pears) and some floral notes.  On the palate it was zesty with a slightly bitter, but not unpleasantly so, finish.  This would pair amazingly with grilled fish or lighter/herbed pasta dishes.  Or a big ol’ pile of prosciutto.

Ruché.  This will undoubtedly be the most challenging of the five wines to find.  Ruché is a rare, aromatic red grape likely native to the town of Castagnole in Piemonte, where it has been grown for centuries.  Today, there are only around 250 total acres planted to this grape in Italy and it is rarely found elsewhere.

In 2010, Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG became the first (and only!) delimited area dedicated entirely to the Ruché grape.  Wines from this DOCG must be made from at least 90% Ruché (with Barbera or Brachetto making up the balance).  Ruché based wines are typically intensely perfumed with aromas of roses, red fruit and spice.

I recently sampled a Ruché from Montalbera – an Italian producer hugely supportive of and dedicated to the grape.  The wine was one of the most unique wines I’ve ever had.  Incredibly pale in the glass, it looked like it should be delicate and subtle – yet it was anything but.  The wine was full of aromas of cherries, tea leaves, orange peel and spices with very prevalent acidity and tannins and a lengthy, bitter finish.  If you want to try something truly different, Ruché is your wine.

Lagrein.  (rhymes with “wine” – easy to remember!) This red grape is can be found predominantly in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Northeast Italy.  Lagrein is late ripening and needs significant warmth and sun to ripen fully – so it seems somewhat counterintuitive that it would be grown in an area that’s bumping up against the Italian Alps.  However, this region has 300 days of sunshine per year and a warm growing season, so Lagrein thrives – and it’s delicious!

Lagrein makes up about only 8% of total grape plantings in Alto Adige and around 1,200 total acres.  There are also a few California wineries that produce a Lagrein (although I haven’t run across any of these yet).  Lagrein produces fuller bodied, rich, darkly colored wines with higher tannins and acidity and often a bitter finish. The wines are frequently packed with aromas of berry fruit, violets and a savory/meaty component.

We had a Lagrein from Castelfeder, which is located in Alto Adige. This wine was somewhat reminiscent of a Northern Rhône Syrah for me – violets, charred black fruits, smoked meat.  This was Hubs favorite of the two reds, probably because he’s obsessed with smoky anything since he recently purchased a new smoker. 🙂

Lambrusco.  Lambrusco hails from the Emilia-Romagna region and is essentially an umbrella term covering several distinct varieties all within the Lambrusco family.  Some of the more common ones you’re likely to see on a wine label are:

  • Lambrusco di Sorbara – produces the lightest version of Lambrusco and is considered to be the benchmark style
  • Lambrusco Salamino – the most widely planted of the Lambrusco varieties
  • Lambrusco Grasparossa – produces fuller bodied and more tannic wines

Unfortunately, most of the Lambrusco that is exported is sweet, characterless and mass-produced (kind of like my old college standby Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill – yes, dear reader, my introductory “wine” was Boone’s, please don’t judge me).  Classic Lambrusco wines are dry (or very slightly off-dry) with refreshing acidity, fizziness and flavors of bright red berries and spice.   To find this style of Lambrusco, your best bet is to look for DOC or DOP on the label – indicating that the wine was made according to stricter production standards and that the grapes come from a specific geographical area.  Other terms to look for include:

  • Secco, Amabile or Dolce – these mean dry, medium-sweet and sweet
  • Frizzante – lightly sparkling
  • Spumante – fully sparkling

LambruscoHubs and I sampled a few different styles of Lambrusco, ranging from a rather flat and nondescript juicy red wine, to a delicately effervescent wine with black cherries and spice, to an incredibly aromatic sparkler full of dried black fruits.  My favorite by far was the 3rd (the Medici Ermete) and it was incredibly delicious with our barbequed burgers!

So, let’s see . . . that’s 5 native Italian grapes down, only around 345 left to go! 😉

Oh – and I purchased the majority of these wines at Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, CA (which I will be frequenting frequently because it’s the most awesome wine store EVER!!)  But if you’re having problems finding any of these, Hi-Time ships!

Barbera

I’m a Pacific Northwest wine girl.   Give me my Willamette Pinots and Walla Walla Syrahs all day long – they’re my woobie, my comfort zone, my home.  Outside of the United States, I have put a stake in the ground in France.  I’ve passed my French Wine Scholar exam, been inducted into the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, spent two weeks tasting in the French countryside, and stocked my wine fridge with more grower Champagne than I care to admit.

All of this brings me to Italy.

I don’t know much about Italian wines and I sure the hell am not comfortable with the ungodly number of DOCGs (74), DOCs (332) and IGTs (118). I mean, seriously, that is – to quote Hubs most eloquently – a “metric shit ton” of information for a single wine producing country. So to get me out of my comfort zone and expand my palate I took a deep breath and signed up for the Italian Wine Scholar exam.

Unlike the French Wine Scholar exam in which I was studying – for the most part –  regions and grapes I at least had some degree of comfort with, with the IWS I feel like I’m starting from scratch.  Sure, I know about Dolcetto and Nebbiolo – but Freisa or Bosco?  Truth be told, before the IWS course I’d never even heard of these grapes!  Thankfully the good folks at the Wine Scholar Guild graciously indicated “need-to-know” areas in the textbook so I’m not cramming my brain with minor details that won’t be on the exam. IWS know this

My primary reasons for pursuing the IWS certification are twofold: (1) learn more about Italy in preparation for my WSET Diploma (starts in May!); and (2) get out of my comfort zone and expand my palate.  I definitely tend to gravitate towards Syrah and Pinot Noir with regularity . . . too much so to be honest.  If I can discover a few other go-to wines during my IWS studies, that would make all of these outlines and flashcards worthwhile (I think).  Also, by almost every conceivable measure Italy is the largest wine producing country in the world – so, you know, I probably ought to be conversant about their grapes!

Fortunately, early on in my IWS studies I “re-discovered” Barbera which was a little like seeing an old friend on your first day at a new school.  I’ve had it several times before, but always socially, never as part of my academic pursuits, which I honestly think makes me appreciate it even more.  It’s a classic, “everybody loves a comeback” grape.

While Barbera’s exact origin is unknown, it’s believed to have existed in the Monferrato region of Piemonte (Northwest Italy) since the 7th century.  So essentially, about a thousand years before Cabernet Sauvignon came into being!  Currently, Italy is home to almost 85% of the world’s Barbera plantings with approximately 52,600 total acres.  To put this into perspective, Italy’s Barbera production is roughly equivalent to every single grape grown in the entire state of Washington (see “metric shit ton” reference above).

Barbera used to be produced en masse and hailed as “the people’s wine”, with much of it being – to quote Miles – “quaffable, but far from transcendent.” Over the past 20+ years, Barbera has had a dramatic upgrade in its image and is no longer constantly playing second (or third) fiddle to other Italian red varietals. Producers are planting Barbera on more prized vineyard sites. Yields are being kept in check by careful pruning. And finally, to balance its crazy high acidity and diminished tannic structure, more producers are opting to age Barbera in smaller oak barrels as opposed to the traditional large neutral casks. This often results in a wine that has a layer of spicy complexity, mellowed acidity and a delicious combination of lively red fruit with vanilla notes.

When I was visiting my Dad during the holidays, we went on our traditional wine-tasting afternoon in the Red Mountain AVA (which he is fortunate enough to live practically next door to).  While at one of our favorites, I noticed an older vintage of Barbera on their shelves.  Knowing that there’s less than 100 acres of this grape grown in the entire state, I was curious what my home state’s version of this wine would taste like compared to the Italian classic.  Here are my thoughts:

Kiona BarberaKiona Vineyards 2010 Barbera, Red Mountain, WA.  14.5% abv. Medium ruby-garnet colored.  The aromatics make me think of a delicate Cabernet – red currants and an almost vegetal note (I tend to get this with a lot of Red Mountain wines).  This seriously smells like our friend Paul’s bourbon soaked cherries that he gave us a few years ago and we haven’t actually tried yet because I’m afraid I’ll be on my lips after having just one!  Lots of secondary and tertiary aromas here as well – spice, charred oak, coffee, sandalwood.  The wine is medium bodied and acidity is definitely pushing high.  There’s a little bit of heat from the alcohol, noticeable but not overwhelming.

Cantina del Pino 2015 Barbera, Barbera d’Alba, Italy. 14.% abv. Color here runs a little more ruby-purple.  This wine smells pretty – roses, black raspberries and cherries, pomegranate, but the aromatics are not nearly as strong or complex as the Kiona.  On the palate, lots of the same juicy fruits with round/smooth tannins.  This wine is very straightforward – it’s tasty, but there’s just not a lot going onBarbera d'Alba.

While I enjoyed both, I surprised myself by preferring the Red Mountain Barbera over the classic Barbera d’Alba.  The d’Alba was simple – very sour fruit driven with not a whole lot else going on.  Nonetheless, both tasted delicious with my pizza!  Barbera pairs wonderfully with a variety of foods – tomato based dishes like pasta or pizza, BBQ chicken or charcuterie.

Try it out for yourself – and check out the outline on Barbera!